Love & Friendship
(Ireland/France/Netherlands, 92 min.)
Written and directed by Whit Stillman
Starring: Kate Beckinsale, Chloë Sevigny, Morfydd Clark, Xavier Samuel, Tom Bennett, Lochlann O’Mearáin
Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale) in Whit Stillman's Jane Austen adaptation Love & Friendship.
Photo by Bernard Walsh, Blinder Films.

Jane Austen gets a quick-witted counterpart in Love & Friendship. This film marks the first page-to-screen adventure by Whit Stillman, the writer/director of hip New Yorker indies like Metropolitan, The Last Days of Disco, and Damsels in Distress, and the world of lady Jane is a perfect fit for Stillman. Love & Marriage seamlessly transports a comedy of manners over two centuries after its original author put paper to pen thanks to the sharpness and contemporary sensibility of Whit’s wit. Love & Friendship might be Stillman’s first adaptation, but it’s one of his best and most original works.

Love & Friendship adapts Jane Austen’s unfinished novella Lady Susan, one her first works but published years after her death, and stars Kate Beckinsale as Lady Susan Vernon, a scandalous socialite who mooches off her companions and frenemies in the months following the death of her husband. Lady Susan, alone and penniless, simply moves from household to household and live off the dimes of her peers while seeking a new man to be her meal ticket. Her daughter Francesca (Morfydd Clark), a nuisance to be tolerated now that she’s of an eligible age, also needs attention (ish) as Lady Susan prepares a battle plan for love and war.

Enter three beaus: the young and eligible Reginald De Courcy (Xavier Samuel), the dim-witted and eager Mr. Martin (Tom Bennett), and the dashing but married Lord Manwaring (Lochlann O’Mearáin) and the lady of the film lives up to her reputation for being a calculating flirt. She knows how to use any man to her advantage be he single or married, and they’re all equally intoxicated by her charm, beauty, and wit. Susan’s ally appears in Chloë Sevigny’s Alicia Johnson (an American), who receives all of Lady Susan’s scandalous updates and assists by being a go-between for the prospective men who catch Susan’s interest.

The film still feels very much like a Whit Stillman movie as well-to-do yuppies titter and gab, living posh existences they can’t afford while dabbling in romance and other pleasures while the help lurks in the background. Beckinsale and Sevigny reunite with Stillman after playing aimless twentysomethings in 1998’s The Last Days of Disco, and Love & Friendship could easily be an elaborate costume party that Charlotte and Alice throw at Studio 54. Despite the corsets and heaving bosoms, everything about the film plays like a contemporary comedy. The actresses giggle and glance at the men of Love & Friendship with critical eyes. Every word is Austen, but the film re-reads the material by playing it straight. It offers a riotous critique of classism, sexism, wealth, and privilege with Stillman’s droll sense of humour.

Beckinsale arguably gives the best performance of her career as Lady Susan. By embracing all of the character’s haughty faults and dressing them within the veil of socialite ignorance circa 1790, Beckinsale’s prim and proper man-eater relishes the comedy that finds humour in the woes of the rich and vapid. Her deadpan line readings draw out the social critique of Austen's work, the mania for marriage that engulfs women of the period, and wonderfully refashions it in a delicately layered character who invites both criticism and praise for her ability to wrap snooty Brits around her finger.

Sevigny is also a marvelous hoot as Alicia. She best draws out the contemporary edginess of the material with scathing and sarcastic rolls of her eyes as the men of the film share their views on women. The conspiratorial quality of Alice’s allegiance to Susan adds to the fun.

Love & Friendship marks one of the sharper adaptations of an author who makes voluminous incarnations onscreen despite a relatively small body of work, and it helps that Lady Susan isn’t shot as abundantly as Pride & Prejudice is. The film marks a rare case in which Austen plays like original work. Like Patricia Rozema’s Mansfield Park, Love & Friendship takes the road of the less-frequently filmed Austen and lets the contemporary seep in, bringing Austen’s world and characters to life with a pulse that plays perfectly to the energy of today. Stillman’s eye for fashion, atmosphere, and character are as fabulous here as they are in the discos of the 70s and the hotspots of the 90s, too, as the filmmaker uses every tailoring of the Austen period to the film’s advantage and accentuates the themes with crazy hats and bouncing cleavage. As far as page-to-screen endeavours go, Jane Austen and Whit Stillman are as fine a marriage as Lizzy Bennet and Mr. Darcy.

Love & Friendship is currently playing in Toronto at the Cineplex Varsity.
It opens in Ottawa at The ByTowne on June 3.